It’s been difficult to pin down what exactly happened to writer/director Andrew Niccol after his 1997 debut, Gattaca, but theories ranged from him having been replaced with a lookalike to him having had a stroke. A double feature of S1mone and In Time suggests the latter, but what then to make of the film sandwiched between them? Lord of War is a blackly comic morality play that never saw the eyeballs it deserved, but as if he were being punished for creating something thought-provoking, he disappeared for the next six years only to return in 2011 with a legitimately terrible, feature-length wrist-watch commercial starring Justin Timberlake.
The release of his latest film sees him once again crafting lazy, simplistic sci-fi, this time adapting a novel by bestselling hack Stephenie Meyer, but in addition to being laughably bad, The Host may actually offer an answer to the question above. What happened to turn the man behind Gattaca and The Truman Show into a seemingly clueless boob who thinks shiny, silver cars and idealized talk about mankind’s value are enough to qualify a film as speculative fiction?
Having seen the movie the answer seems so obvious now. An intergalactic jellyfish slipped into a paper cut fifteen years ago, curled up around his brain stem, smothered his creativity, talent and curiosity and then turned his body into a fleshy, bipedal rental car. And Niccol’s been fighting to be heard from the back seat ever since.
In The Host, Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) is on the run from a group of alien-controlled post-humans led by the Seeker (Diane Kruger) whose anger over a recent Quidditch loss has her more than a little bit ornery. The girl jumps through a window choosing death over alien occupation of her head space, but the invaders heal her damaged body and insert a tentacled glowworm into her cranium anyway. The newly christened Wanderer (still Ronan) awakes in human female form, but it isn’t long before she begins hearing Melanie’s voice in her head protesting the new arrangement.
Wanderer is tasked by the Seeker with dredging Melanie’s memories to help ferret out the remaining members of the human resistance, but those same memories also reveal to Wanderer the sensation of a human kiss and of reaching first base. Her allegiances begin to shift as she starts to see humans as the awesome beings they are, and she sets out to right the wrongs of her species one French kiss at a time.
The remaining two thirds of the movie see more reflective cars, a complete lack of effort in regard to world-building, woefully inconsistent alien “tech,” a total disinterest in logic and the introduction of cave people representing the last vestiges of humanity. They include Melanie’s love interest Jared (Max Irons), Wanderer’s love interest Ian (Jake Abel), a grizzled William Hurt and a bunch of characters we never really meet but will be asked to mourn for soon enough.
There’s so little to compliment here, but it can be summed up with the honest recognition that it’s always nice to see Hurt and Kruger on the big screen.
So there’s that.
The biggest problem is Niccol’s script (and by extension Meyer’s source material). It’s lazy in its efforts to explain or describe anything related to the alien species, narrows human relationships down to the most basic elements and is populated with terribly simple dialogue exchanges and statements (“This is a big planet.”) One particularly entertaining exchange sees Wanderer, who’s described as 1000 years old and the veteran invader of twelve planets/life-forms, stating that she’s never seen anything as amazing as wheat grown indoors.
The aliens are referred to as souls, but the script can’t decide if they’re good or bad. This isn’t an issue of gray areas, but instead a lack of conviction and clarity as we’re told repeatedly that the souls are benevolent and beneficial even in the face of what amounts to the murder of mankind. Not that humanity deserves to be saved as their only value here seems to be in the feel of their lips and their ability to commit suicide when the going gets tough.
And it wouldn’t be a Stephenie Meyer story without the female “hero” discovering a romance without free will. While Twilight‘s Bella was essentially glamored into her otherwise nonsensical love for vampire Edward, Wanderer is unable to love who she chooses because her body loves someone else.
The performances are all middle of the road with none of them standing out as particularly good or bad, but one that does suffer thanks to the script is Ronan’s voice-over work as Melanie. From her sketchy Louisiana accent to the illogically jokey and conversational tone of the voice-over itself, the interaction between Melanie and Wanderer makes the Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin pairing in All of Me seem subtle and sincere by comparison.
There’s no getting around the fact that The Host is a terrible movie, but while it offers little in the way of intentional entertainment, it should be taken as a positive sign that Niccol is communicating with us again. The only hope he has now is for everyone to go see his movie and to love it. Maybe then the alien parasite will exit his body willingly. In other words, say goodbye to Andrew Niccol.
The Upside: William Hurt and Diane Kruger hopefully got paid well
The Downside: Lazy sci-fi; voice-overs are terribly written and performed; action is negligible and poorly structured; script is basic
On the Side: Currently all of Stephenie Meyer’s fiction has been adapted for the screen, so we’re safe from any more movies after this one for the foreseeable future.